Strugglwing with the Past: Some Dynamics of Historical Representation
James V. Wertsch Clark University
The ideas that a citizenry has about its history play an essential role -- for better or worse -- in shaping its political discourse and action. Historical accounts may be invoked in order to remind others of shameful episodes of the past that should not be repeated or of democratic traditions that should be upheld. They may also be invoked to incite groups to deprive others of their rights, property, or lives in the name of reversing past injustices or returning to an earlier glorious (and often highly mythologized) period.
A fact that underlies all these processes is that some form of representing the past must be involved. Because the only access we have to the past is through its representation, that is, through history, it is crucial to understand the factors that shape the production and uses of these representations. Among other things, it is important to understand the historical representations that ordinary citizens hold. It is these historical representations that political discourse often draws on to mobilize action. What cultural and psychological processes are involved in the production of historical representation, and how do these processes operate in various sociocultural settings?
In what follows, I examine these issues by approaching historical representation as a form of "mediated action" ( Wertsch, 1985, 1991). In this approach historical representations are viewed as deriving from the employment of "mediational means," or cultural tools (I use the two terms interchangeably here). The cultural tools involved are semiotic devices such as stories or narratives, strategies of argumentation, and mythic structures. They are provided by the cultural, historical, and institutional settings in which people live, and they play a fundamental role in shaping the form